Notes from a trip to Alaska.
You can get from Anchorage to Denali National Park by rental car, Alaska Railway passenger train, or chartered flight — but we took the bus. A regular service runs from the convention center in downtown Anchorage to multiple stops in and around Denali, about four hours’ drive north on State Highway 3, and it leaves early. C and I hiked our luggage through a light morning drizzle to join a small crowd of fellow-passengers huddled under the convention center portico, and by 7:30 am we were driving north.
We took the highway — the only highway — east out of town and then west towards Wasila, with views of mountains through the cloud banks. Eventually the rain got too heavy, mist rolled in, and the highway headed north and left more developed territory, running between walls of forest that looked, to eyes raised on eastern temperate-deciduous woods, distinctly scraggly. The trees were aspen, spruce, none more than 40 feet tall, rising out of thick undergrowth like bathers wading in the shallow end of a crowded swimming pool. Large swathes of the spruce were dead-looking, gray-brown ghost groves — killed by spruce beetles, apparently.
By midday, mountains started to emerge from the clouds again. Their slopes were now visibly bare — the highway was almost at tree line, though I think we haven’t gained that much elevation. The undergrowth settled down to knee-high shrubs, then grass meadows, between spinnies of smaller and smaller trees. The mountains were a dark wall to the east, tops hidden in a solid ceiling of cloud.
We had originally planned to camp in the park, but the short-term forecast washed the appeal out of that plan. That first afternoon in Anchorage, C and I discussed our options: First, there was the explicit question of how unappealing it would be to return from a day of hiking in the rain to a tent that had never really dried out while we were gone — and, second, there was the implicit question of whether booking a hotel was a threat to our respective self-images. We had just walked back from downtown through a particularly brisk rain shower, so it was a not a long discussion.
C found us a last-minute room in the Grande (sic) Denali Lodge, which turned out to be perched hundreds of feet up a bluff overlooking the river that forms the east boundary of Denali National Park and Preserve. It was the bus’s last stop after a circuit through a small town strung along the highway north of the park entrance, the most visible components of which were resort-style hotels (we stopped at two of these) and a multi-block stretch of gift shops and wilderness outfitters. From there, our bus inched up a multi-switchbacked driveway, barely pivoting through the hairpin turns, until we pulled into a gravel parking lot spread out between the portico of a building housing the lodge’s central reception and restaurant — which did indeed have the peaked Germanic roof and pseudo-log-cabin siding of a grand hunting lodge — and a long, more generic-hotel structure that contained most of the guest rooms.
The Grande Denali provided a shuttle bus to the park visitor center, so we hastily reshuffled our things to separate day-packs from overnight luggage, checked the overnight stuff at the front desk, and grabbed hilariously overpriced sandwiches from the lobby snack bar before the next shuttle departure. Down the switchbacks and across the river, and we were quickly in the park, amidst a campus of concessions and transportation facilities linked by paved paths through the kind of spruce-aspen forest we’d seen along the highway on the way up.
The crowd in the Grande Denali shuttle were a perceptibly different lot from the dozen or so of us in the big touring bus we’d taken up from Anchorage. On the drive up, C and I were probably in the upper half of the age distribution, one of multiple couples kitted out with full hiking packs and boots. The Grande Denali shuttle passengers were overwhelmingly older than the bus passengers, and whiter, and less likely to be dressed for a full day in the trackless wilderness of the national park we were all visiting. They were about as likely to be couples; but much more likely to be couples in which one partner was explaining to the other, in a louder-than-private voice, what the bus driver had just said about the schedule for return trips. The two right behind us on the shuttle were discussing the digestive hazards of eating a big meal before a hike.
We were among retiree tourists.
We were, in fact, staying at retiree tourists’ kind of hotel, and taking their kind of approach to visiting one of the most remote National Parks in the United States. I’d imagined us as scrappy young-adult explorers like our fellow bus passengers, coming to camp in what was nearly the farthest wilderness we could reach without a passport. By virtue of booking a hotel room instead of pitching a tent in the rain, we were now shuttling from that three-star hotel to a visitor center, discussing whether we should sign up for a park ranger-guided tour the next day, and thinking about our choice of restaurants in the tourist-trap town across the river. As this recognition settled on me in the middle of the park visitor center campus, C leaned over and informed me, in a louder-than-private voice, that the trailhead for Horseshoe Lake was that way.
Hiking is good, fortunately, for minor identity crises. We’d already identified the Horseshoe Lake loop as a good walk for a first afternoon, and we were soon enough on a wide gravel trail between spruce trees and the white trunks of aspens. Boreal chickadees scold from the underbrush as we worked our way downhill to the lake, the result of beavers damming a tributary of the park-edging Nenana River. We found the dam, permanent enough to rate an explanatory placard, and a lodge of heaped branches on the shore opposite, as well as many trees with bark gnawed off below knee height — but no visible beavers. Coming around the lake, though, we got a clear view of two moose in the water up to their bellies, browsing pondweed. One was bigger than the other, neither had antlers; probably a mother and adolescent calf.
The Grande Denali’s restaurant was closed on Sundays, so when we got back from Horseshoe lake we cleaned up and hiked down the switchbacks into “town” for dinner at the restaurant of another resort hotel, the McKinley Chalets. It proved to be part of a cluster of buildings around a courtyard, an artificial town square of gift shops and outfitters, with a stage in the middle where a guy sang bluegrass in a stage-twang. (“Buy the Green River, whar paraduys lays!”) The place had the feeling of a cruise ship, and indeed the McKinley Chalets is owned and operated by a subsidiary of the Holland America cruise line company. As we sit down and look over the menu — $50 fish entrees, appetizers prominently featuring truffle oil — I feel the rising identity crisis again.
But, as we ordered upmarket salmon and fish and chips and talked about how best to spend our one full day in the park, through the windows behind our booth, the sun started to emerge. As we paid our tab and hiked out of the ersatz village of the McKinley Chalets, we could see that we were going to an impressive view when we got back up to our hotel on the bluff. We took a lap through the tourist trap to browse the gift shops, raise our eyebrows at the prices posted by the wilderness guides, and collect ice cream cones (the shop was out of “moose tracks”) before catching the shuttle back up the switchbacks to the Grande Denali.
There were still miles of cloud between us and Denali, the mountain; but from the deck of the lodge we could see well into Denali, the National Park. Below, the river wound through blue-green forests, and beyond it sunlight and shadow played over bare mountain ridges. It would start raining overnight again, but we’d rest well before hiking through the drizzle.